15 July 2017

Road Trip: Into the Eifel

Although you might think that we have chosen our friends strategically, luck alone has distributed them in geographically alluring regions.  To spice up getting there (and facilitate hourly stretching breaks), we never take the direct route, but wind our way from A to B via as many stops as we can squeeze into a day.  For example, in late May we rendezvoused with SB & GM a couple hours from their home for a lovely afternoon of coffee, chat, and snapshots.

Our first stop was practically in the backyard, in that it was at a cathedral that we drive or walk past at least once a year.  Yet it had been seven years since I last popped in, which means I couldn't remember ever have been there before.  Although the Cathedral of Trier, first built in the 4th century on Roman foundations and destroyed and rebuilt several times over the subsequent millennium, is probably most famous for the relic known as the Seamless Robe of Jesus, we were drawn to the 18th century wooden marquetry work, which covers the extensive walls of the Nikolaus altar.
From there we swung northeast and began to wind our way along the Moselle River, stopping off in the small town of Bernkastel-Kues to take in the old-town.
Further north, just above the town of Alf on the river, we toured the medieval Arras Castle museum.
And then we just happened to drive past the Cochem Castle from above.
Our next stop was the village of Monreal and the start of our pilgrimage to the region known as the Eifel, which had become dear to us through a silly G-rated cop show on German TV.
Due to the proximity to the highly industrial Rhine River valley (about 10 miles away), the city of Mayen was unfortunately bombed to smithereens during the war.  But the bridge across the city wall to the Genovevaburg remains!
Our final stop for the day was a series of shallow mine shafts into 13,000 year-old, 200' deep volcanic tuff deposits near the town of Brohl.  Although the Romans were the first to discover this regional "trass" (shipping it deep into the Empire), the Trasshöhlen we visited were dug out to use for Dutch dyke construction in the 1600s because tuff mortar binds well even under water.
The next morning we stopped in Ahrweiler, which is surrounded by a defensive wall and has had four city gates since the Middle Ages.  Nonetheless, the town was razed to the ground during the Thirty Years War, so only 10 houses date to before 1690.
By mid-morning we had entered the >700 year-old spa town of Bad Münstereifel.  Although it was bombed 25 times during WWII, it was well rebuilt and still retains many old structures.
But the real reason we were there was to meet up with SB & GM, who arrived on the noon train.  That gave us the chance to have lunch while it was raining and then tool about, Nikons in hand, until we were ready to refuel with coffee and ice cream.  What a great visit!
Shortly before dusk, we paused in the woods near the Belgian-German border to appreciate one of the few remaining vestiges of the Battle of the Bulge, which was the last major German offensive of WWII.  Although trenches like this were spread throughout this region, agricultural cultivation and development have smoothed over most.
The next day we explored the small town of Monschau, which contains many structures that have changed little in over 300 years (much to the chagrin of homeowners wishing to make changes but constrained by 'historical monument' status).  This is slate-country, so every roof and many an exterior wall is sheathed in the variable local light-grey slate.
Just outside town lies the highly irregular border to Belgium, right on the edges of an extensive, protected moor.  We strolled along the boardwalk in Im Platten Venn, taking in the cotton grass and hunting down the occasional tree.
Our target was the German town of Aachen, which lies at the three-country-corner of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.  Dating to at least 700, Aachen was Charlemagne's favorite residence and thereafter the site of the crowning of 31 Holy Roman Emperors as kings of Germany.  Although rebuilt in Baroque style after a fire in the 17th century, the city was largely destroyed during WWII and has relatively little to recommend it.  Except the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Dom, which is worth a visit every 10 years or so. 
Construction was completed around 800, but it was restored following a Viking raid in 983, enlarged in 1355 and later, and restored again starting in 1881.  At the center is an octagonal mosaic-tile domed Byzantine chapel, from which the later Gothic choir hall extends.
What takes my breath away are the arches and walls of the passages, which were covered with mosaics (many gilded) of both biblical scenes and floristic themes around 1900.
Turning south from this point, the most direct route back home was through Belgium and Luxembourg.  Although the Belgian countryside and villages are not so picturesque, we did pause in the town of Malmedy to appreciate the renovated town hall (a better mental image than the "Malmedy massacre" in which 84 US POWs were gunned down).
The nearby village of Stavelot, also in a grey-slate region, has tremendous touristic potential (code for "nearly every other building and street was a dilapidated catastrophe").
We shortly entered Luxembourg and took in the typical landscape of villages interspersed with neatly maintained agricultural fields, woodlands, and the increasingly common European windmill.
Our last stop of the day was the town of Clervaux.  Although initially the American tank and flag may seem a bit odd, Clervaux was strategically important and the site of heavy fighting during the Battle of the Bulge (which destroyed much of the town and left a few tanks behind).  Although the Allies were caught off guard and it was the largest and bloodiest engagement by US troops, the failed offensive used up the last resources of the Germany army and air force and marked the beginning of the end.

Next time:  southwards into Italy.

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